David H. Hackworth
July 13, 1999
ABOVE AND BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY
A few weeks ago, Navy pilot Carl Oesterle was catapulted off the deck of the USS Constellation in his F-18C aircraft. Within seconds of being shot into the sky like a rocket, Oesterle, known by his shipmates as "Oyster," knew he was in deep trouble. One of his powerful twin engines was dead, and the other was sputtering, stalling and whistling like an old washing machine.
Just before being launched, his engines had sucked up some of the rubber sealer used to keep the steam in the catapult. The $35 million fighter was a sick bird that looked about to splash into the Pacific Ocean. Many of the old pros aboard the carrier expected Oyster to punch out. But he kept his Hornet airborne, nursing his one malfunctioning engine. Slowly he climbed from wave top to 100 feet and then to 3000, fighting every second of the way to keep control of the aircraft as he burned up and dumped fuel.
While Oyster was preparing the aircraft to land on a moving deck on a very dark night, the ship's crew expertly tossed up a barricade. This netting would snare the crippled aircraft if Oyster was able to get it down. Oyster's first attempt was too high, and by now he had only enough fuel for one more try. As cool as ice, he circled the carrier. A fellow pilot sweating the landing said the one engine was "making a sickening whine and pop" spitting out engine pieces "like a salvo of flares going off."
After getting instructions from the "Paddles" -- the landing signals officer -- Oyster made his approach, assisted greatly by his incredible flying skill and rare courage and with a lot of professionalism and prayers from the ship's crew.
Under the circumstances, he made a perfect landing, hitting the barricade dead on centerline, coming to a screeching stop. Oyster coolly climbed out of his crippled bird and walked away to an explosion of cheers from over 5,000 relieved shipmates.
Over the years, this landing will grow into a mighty Jonah-like sea legend. There were 340 major hits in the compressor section of his "good" engine and 20 feet of the black rubber seal still attached to the dead one. Remember, a small bird or even a button-size object can close down a jet engine.
Former Naval flight officer Mark Crissman, who flew with Oyster, says, "In the movie 'The Right Stuff' when Gordon Cooper was asked who was the best pilot he'd ever seen and almost replied 'Chuck Yeager,' well, Oyster is just like Yeager. Damn good, down to earth, with nerves of steel." Since I was a boy growing up in a California World War 11 "sailor's town," I've had profound respect for carrier guys. Back then, to a teen-ager, they were the bravest of the brave.
Over the years this respect has steadily grown. Had our carriers not single-handedly won the most decisive battle of our country's history at Midway in 1942, most of my Santa Monica pals would've had to take a Berlitz course in Japanese.
Next, I watched them perform right up close and personal in Korea and Vietnam, putting iron on target. Flying so low and slow that had I as a grunt stood up, I could have shaken hands with the airmen who time after time made my unit's job easier and on dozens of occasions flat saved our infantry skins.
I watched them perform with great skill and daring during the Gulf War as well, from a front-row reporter's seat. And I saw them crash and burn after the disastrous Tailhook Convention in Las Vegas -- which did more damage to Naval aviation than all the enemy slugs down through the years.
After the "Battle of Las Vegas," where they were labeled as sexual predators by our ever-so-righteous press, the admirals deserted them and the slick politicians did what they could to castrate them, weakening their ranks by putting unqualified women in fighter cockpits and conducting a political-correctness pogrom. Simultaneously, President Clinton has been trying his best to break them with his wrongheaded over commitment schemes.
But thanks to men like Lt. Commander "Oyster" Oesterle, they hang tough and strong and will always be there when we need them to fight another Midway.